Will There Ever be Justice for Workers?

by Faviola Whittier

1515 – Spanish priest Bartolme de las Casas argues that enslaving the First Peoples in encomiendas is wrong because the indigenous people of the Caribbean were equal to the European colonisers. He convinces the Spanish King Charles I to end the encomienda system.

1518 – Spanish King Charles I grants permission to transport the first 4,000 African slaves to the West Indies.

1833 – The United Kingdom makes slavery illegal in its colonies, including the island of Trinidad and Tobago.

1834 – The Governor of Trinidad announces apprenticeship – enslaved people have to continue working on plantations without pay for 6 more years. Full emancipation was not achieved until 1838, after years of protests.

1845 – The Fath Al Razack brings the first East Indian indentured labourers to Trinidad to work on the sugar plantations.

1884 – Labour tensions rise in sugar plantations, leading to a ban on all processions of East Indians entering towns. British soldiers open fire East Indians celebrating Hosay in San Fernando.

From the beginning of our colonial history to the present post-Independent era in Trinidad and Tobago, labour has been exploited. No one worked for their own benefit – those who owned land or factories refused to get their hands dirty (a fact noted in letters of the time by Spanish officials reporting on the lack of development in the colonies). Those who worked could only choose between labour to benefit someone else (i.e. the factory/landowners) or harsh punishments. Violent rebellions were inevitable, as were more creative forms of resistance that allowed workers to escape both work and punishment.

This is our history – not the world we live in today. What changed?

We did.

We educated ourselves about workers’ rights and trade unionism. We organised ourselves. We raised up our own leaders who understood the unfairness of being expected to give your all in a job with bad pay and bad conditions.

The story of June 19, 1937 has been told in many places, including the death of Charlie King when he attempted to arrest Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Bulter in Fyzabad. As important as June 19 is, we should also pay attention to what happened after – the establishment of trade unions. Adrian Cola Rienzi was the first President General of five trade unions including the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union and the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Union.

All the rights and benefits that workers enjoy today were won by workers who came together in trade unions. They were not given by any politician or business owner or manager. Vacations, pensions, maternity leave, workman’s compensation, sick leave, bonuses… all were victories won by the people of this country.

The losers of those battles, who still live more comfortably than workers, have not given up. They are still refusing to get their hands dirty and are taking advantage of others who work for them. Caroni closed, and the workers still have not gotten their promised compensation. ArcelorMittal closed, and workers were denied their severance benefits. Petrotrin was closed and the workers were denied justice.

Knowing our history, can we wait for someone to save us? Or, knowing our history and how much our own people achieved, will we stand up and fight for ourselves?

Remembering 1970

The following piece was transcribed from a speech delivered by YSJ chairman, Angelo Hart. The speech was made at a rally after a march that was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Black Power Uprising of 1970.

The rally was a joint effort between the Youths for Social Justice and the Emancipation Support Committee. It was held on Ash Wednesday of this year and featured other speakers such as Kafra Kambon and Clive Nunez as well as poems by Pearl Entou Springer and Mtima Solwazi of ROOTS Foundation, with a reading of Kamau Brathwate by Muhammad Muwakil.

“In order for the deaf to hear, there has to be an explosion.” These were the words of Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh, a man who spent his life resisting colonial oppression. 

On February 26th 1970, an explosion took place right here in Port of Spain, at the very site we began our march. This explosion was arguably a minor one. It was not the result of weapons of conventional warfare, neither was it a physical explosion of any kind. 

This explosion, perhaps in the greater scheme of things, was a spark. A spark that was the result of colonial machinery falling apart in a modern world, and a spark that ignited greater explosions in the period that followed. But we will discuss those explosions at another time.

This spark in particular is important because for the first time perhaps since Independence,  it inspired the people of Trinidad and Tobago to question and challenge the state of inequality that had existed in T&T. The glitz and the glamour of 1962 had faded. The reality of class inequality and the presence of laws and customs that resembled Apartheid-era South Africa had set in. 

What good was being an Independent country if foreign multinational companies owned more and more of our GDP? What does a flag and an anthem mean when people of African and Indian descent couldn’t work in the banks, had limited access to education and couldn’t even go to some of our own beaches, in our own country? Furthermore, independence from a colonial power meant nothing and still means nothing if our people are still treated with contempt and scorn in these so-called “developed” countries. 

The protest of February 26th 1970 was born out of frustration. The rate of unemployment was the highest it had ever been in our history. Foreign corporations owned as much as 22% of our national wealth, while people who look like you and me were forbidden from working in our banks. Worse yet, access to areas in our Independent country were off limits. 

I would not cover each detail of that 1970 protest, because this is not why I am here to address you. This is more than just preserving history for the sake of it. 

We are here because the project that was started in 1970 is not only incomplete, it is near-forgotten. The battles that were fought and the people who died in the aftermath have been wiped from the pages of our textbooks by those who control our education. Indeed, if we were to take a look at the state of our education system, you would realise that we have not instilled in our young people a desire and an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to our communities. 

Instead we have forced a culture of vanity, materialism and excessive consumption on our children. Education is no longer a tool to liberate the oppressed, but now a tool to create obedient workers. 

This is why we have “career politicians”. Even our public offices are seen as a means to elevate one’s status and financial gain. 

I wonder what our country would look like if schoolchildren were taught about how the streets of Port of Spain were flooded with thousands of people for the funeral of Bazil Davis? I wonder what it would look like if they knew who Bazil Davis even was in the first place, and how he came to lose his life right here in this square? 

And what of the names of Beverly Jones and Guy Harewood? How they challenged the government of Eric Williams and how they were murdered at the hands of a commissioner who went on to become the father of the drug trade in this country? 

But as the old saying goes, those who do not know their history are bound to repeat it. Our unemployment rate is increasing. It has been reported that in the last 5 years over 20,000 people have lost their jobs. Meanwhile foreign companies have proliferated throughout our islands even as our foreign exchange crisis continues. Caribbean people are still used as cheap labour both at home and abroad. How many of us have relatives that were forced under the circumstances to give up their lives and their families in search of opportunities elsewhere? How many of our university graduates have had to leave our own country out of frustration with not being able to advance their lives in any meaningful way while contributing to the development and growth of our country and our region? 

Comrades, this is not the result of chance or incompetence. For the ones who control our education are the same ones who control labour and employment in this country. They used to ask for 3 CXC subjects to work at KFC. But with a KFC on every corner, they ran out of people with three subjects and now they asking for 5, and a bachelor’s degree may as well be just as worthless. 

If history was taught in a fundamental way, do you think the so-called “fully dunce” and “fully ignorant” youths of marginalised communities would be turning their guns on each other in frustration at the circumstances that they are living in? 

How far would our society come if African and Indian students learned about the great March to Caroni and what it meant for the people of that era who were willing to put their differences aside to overcome racial hatred and racial division? 

In closing, I wish to commend the warriors of the old days for the freedoms that young people like myself are able to enjoy today. I wish to let them know that the struggles they faced in 1970 will never be forgotten. We the Youths of Social Justice are determined to finish the project that was started by the warriors of old. Thank you for listening to us today, and thank you for attending our commemoration. 

Power to the people!